Friday, January 19, 2018

Review of 'Global crisis: war, climate change and catastrophe in the seventeenth century' by Geoffrey Parker

I love reading 'big-picture' history books, and they don't come much bigger picture than this. He brings together conventional history (wars, revolts, etc.) with paleo-climatology, so there's lots of evidence about what the weather was like in the C17th. What it was mainly like was awful - cold, disturbed rainfall patterns (droughts and floods), short growing seasons - all leading to famine and thus to war.

At times the book feels over-long, especially in the middle. There really are a lot of blow by blow accounts of what happened in each of the places he includes in his studies - I didn't need a new narrative history of the English Civil Wars. But it's worth reading for the beginning and the end, which does bring it all together,,,and bring it back up to date with accounts of Katrina, Sandy and other more recent disasters.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Review of 'Miss Sloane'

Like the lobbyist bits of 'House of Cards', with all the other bits taken out. Strong women characters who interact with each other about things other than their relationships with men, and a decent critical perspective both on the lobbying industry and on US politics. Nice acting, slightly odd camera work sometimes, as if it couldn't decide whether it wanted to look like a fly-on-the-wall documentary or not.

Long but not boring, and quite a few twists that I didn't see coming. I particularly liked the hacked cockroach, which we had been discussing at home a few days before.

Watched at home on clever TV with built-in Amazon video.

Review of 'Oscar and Lucinda'

Beautiful film, nice acting. Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett are great at conveying how odd the two main characters are, and I can't begin to describe all the meaning that is held in that thing that Fiennes does with his eyes.

I didn't mind that it simplified the plot - I think it still managed to convey, for example, the extent to which the 'benevolent' act of sending the glass church overland causes such death and destruction in its wake. 

But though I enjoyed it, I was cross that it messed about with the ending. The book's ending is much more poignant - the film has softened the edges of the personal tragedies involved, removed a key plot development (and invented a scene to make this possible - I'll avoid writing a spoiler, but it was painful to have this crowbarred in to the narrative), and also weakened the anti-clerical dimension - in the book Oscar ends up cursing the glass church, though not in the film. 

Watched at home via informal distribution, Chromestream and Chromecast.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Review of Star Wars: the last Jedi

If only I could be convinced that this really was the last Jedi...but instead it's another action-packed but dull installment in the franchise that never ends. This is an evening I'm never going to get back. It wasn't particularly offensive...there was more than a gesture in the direction of ethnic diversity, and several strong women characters who talk to each other about things other than men. But it was mainly a collection of scenes of things crashing into each other and features of the landscape, together with many scenes of 'moderate violence' - that's people being shot or cut up by special weapons but without any blood or gore.

The 'rebel alliance' is no longer (if it ever was) about any sort of rebellion, the 'republic' is led by a princess, and the only difference between the good and bad side is that the latter seem to stand in very straight rows while the former stand around in looser groups. The baddies sometimes wear uniforms that suggest inter-war Poland, but both sides have their fair share of British accents (very confusing for those of us brought up on the tradition of it only being bad guys who sound British); later on both bad and good guy ground troop seem to be looking like US soldiers.

The overall look of the film isn't all that interesting...there is a casino which is sort of art deco themed, and where electro swing light plays in the background, but much of it looks like other Star War usual there is a scene on a narrow bridge over a deep shaft on a spaceship...doesn't the Empire have any safety regulations? The geography of the plot - and the plot as a whole - doesn't seem to make much sense, and there is increasing reliance on supernatural Jedi power to more it along. Admittedly I dozed off for a bit, but I didn't seem to miss much. That little sleep was probably the most enjoyable part of the evening.

I really must stop watching these.

Seen at the Everyman Muswell Hill, in some comfort in a near-empty cinema. I note in passing that the cinema offered me a discount for being over 50, which seems like an odd segmentation choice.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Review of My Happy Family

A Georgian film about a middle-aged woman who lives with her family in a small house (that's her mother and father, her husband, her grown-up son, grown-up daughter and boyfriend) and decides to move out and take a flat alone. The first scene is her being shown round the flat by the landlady, with some familiar 'I haven't got round to clearing out the last tenant's stuff' moments.

The decision to move out seems perfectly sensible - the mother is very controlling, the house very crowded (the family all keep their clothes in one wardrobe which is in the daughter's room, because it's too big to move anywhere else), and the husband very lacklustre - it took me quite a while to realise he was her husband because the relationship between them was so empty.

The film is sad and thoughtful, perhaps partly because the central character is an introvert in a society that doesn't seem to like them very much. She doesn't want to have people round for her birthday, but the family ignore her wishes and invite lots of people over for a big meal, which includes drinking and singing. A Georgian friend of mine has told me about the singing and toast-making culture of Georgia (every quaffing must be precluded with a speech) and it's clearly a real thing. The singing is beautiful - Georgians seem to fall naturally into four-part harmony, and to all know the tunes and the words to folk-songs.

In fact, Georgian society looks great. Tiblisi is not crowded or full of traffic. The neighborhoods she moves from, and too, are leafy and quiet, if a bit run down. The children in the schools are respectful (she's a secondary school teacher) and studious - there's no rowdiness that would be an inevitable part of the depiction of a school in a British or American film. There is a lot of community-ness (which gets on the nerves of the heroine) and the food they eat is all bought at the market and then cooked lovingly to make traditional recipes. Just goes to show that it's possible to be unhappy despite all this...

The film is very slow but nicely observed. I'll avoid spoiling the few actual developments that might be thought of as the plot.

Watched on Netflix.

Review of Theeb

A simple, beautiful, brutal film about beduins caught up in Britain's campaigns against the Ottoman Empire during WW1. A little boy tags along with his brother, guiding a British officer across the desert to a rendezvous with others who will help the officer blow up a section of the Hejaz railway. They run into other beduins who are bandits and the story turns into one of survival and revenge.

Stunning to look at (filmed in similar locations as the 1962 Lawrence of Arabia film, so lots of beautiful dunes and wadis) with great music. Most of the actors are beduins, not professionals, though the little boy was apparently the producer's son.

It made me look up some of the background about the railway itself, which proved more interesting than I thought. I also noticed that the Ottoman fort towards the end of the film had the red and white moon and star flag that modern Turkey uses, which I wrongly thought was introduced by Ataturk. Turns out the Ottomans used it too.

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill, on a DVD.

Review of Pitch Perfect 2

A while back I stumbled across Pitch Perfect (well, it was broadcast on live TV), and unexpectedly rather enjoyed it. The poster adverts on the side of buses for Pitch Perfect 3 reminded me that there had been a Pitch Perfect 2, so after a few slightly sad thoughtful films lately I wanted to watch something that was just entertaining and feelgood...and thought PP2 would fit the bill.

But it wasn't nearly as funny as the first film, despite a few amusing set-pieces and a nice running gag about the ultra-reactionary a capella singing show hosts. Well, at least I won't have to bother with PP3.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Review of 20th Century Women

A feminist coming of age film about a boy, being raised by his single mother in late 1970s Santa Barbara, with the help of her young female art-school punk lodger who is recovering from cervical cancer and a fragile, damaged younger woman who literally sleeps with the boy but doesn't want sex to spoil their relationship, though he clearly feels otherwise.

This is a really good film, with nice observations, and great acting, and a way of addressing the emergence of feminism as it appears to a sympathetic boy as he turns into a man. As a bloke watching feminist films I sometimes feel like I am the problem (not unreasonably) but this was both pointed and pointful, but at the same time a joy to watch.

Lots of great scenery in Southern California, some emergence of punk footage, and lots of good teen stuff too.

It happens to be the period in which I came of age too, and it's striking how much it seems to be in a parallel universe - at one point we get Jimmy Carter's 1979 State of the Union message, and whatever you think of Carter, it's hard to imagine how one could ever get from an America in which that mensch was president to this one.

Watched on Amazon Prime on the new TV.

Review of Amnesia

A post-holocaust movie set in Ibiza, and without any holocaust stuff at all. Young German DJ/producer moves to Ibiza for his career, finds himself living next door to an older woman who [SPOILER ALERT] turns out to be a German who refuses to speak the German language because of what happened to her young Jewish love during the war. They develop a relationship (which he thinks is romantic love, but she knows better) but it's all thrown into turmoil when his mother and much-loved grandfather come to visit, causing everyone to re-examine their pasts and the stories they tell about it.

It's beautiful, and Ibiza looks stunning, and even the clubs (especially the one called Amnesia - geddit?) look great. I'm afraid I was a bit annoyed by a film that focused on the holocaust from the perspective of how it felt to people who were either perpetrators (the grandfather, portrayed by Bruno Ganz, who has told various conflicting stories about his role as a 'rescuer') or who were...well, what is my issue here? She lost a loved one. Does that make her, a non-Jewish German who was herself never under threat but fled to Switzerland, a holocaust survivor?

I've been critical of other holocaust films before which focus on the experience of German and Austrian I subconsciously think that the holocaust was only about what happened to 'my' people, the Jews of Poland and Eastern Europe that were the object of the explicit policy of extermination? Maybe I do...

Aside from that this is not a bad film and worth watching. We watched on Netflix, on our new TV  but via Chromecast rather than via the native Netflix support...slightly easier to manage...

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

An economics reformation

I went to this event yesterday at UCL - Time for an Economic Reformation. Mainly focused on the academic discipline of Economics and its teaching, with the mission of reforming what is taught and studied - rather than about revising economic thought per se...there seemed to be a view, not explicitly stated, that there wasn't much of a need for new thinking itself, just for the academic discipline to reflect the new thinking that was already around.

Good, clear speakers - perhaps a function of the fact that almost all the panel were women? But the only man, Steve Keen, was also very clear, even though I find much of the econometrics that he presents pretty incomprehensible. Other panelists were: Victoria Chick; Mariana Mazzucato; Kate Raworth, of Doughnut Economics fame; and Sally Svenlen, of the Rethinking Economics student group.

The audience was also star-studded - Hilary Wainright, Charlie Leadbetter, and my favourite - David King, formerly Chief Scientist at DECC, who spoke from the floor with some passion - about how the extent to which our economic system had undermined the ability of our species to continue living on our planet was something of an indictment of our economic theories.

Panel chaired by Larry Elliot, economics editor of The Guardian, and event as a whole compered by Andrew Simms of the New Weather Institute (I hadn't heard of that before).

Good discussions, sensible contributions - nothing that made me groan, though equally nothing that looked like it was the key to a root and branch transformation of economic life and organisation. I suspect that one of the reasons for this, and for the slightly lackluster nature of the '33 Theses for an Economics Reformation' is that it's pitched as a conversation with mainstream economists. So though the implications of what is proposed might actually be very radical (as Andrew Simms proposed) it's all positioned as super-sensible.  Mariana Mazzucato cited Polanyi in her short contribution (which was sparkling and interesting) but there wasn't anything in the proposals that matched up to his ideas about how economies are made and unmade.

Delightfully, we were all asked to comment on the 33 Theses. I didn't contribute, but if I had I might have mentioned that the importance of 'intellectual property' - patent and copyright based monopolies - seemed to be missing; and that there wasn't anything about the process whereby economic ideas move from economists to public discourse (as discussed in this paper by Laurie Laybourn-Langton and Michael Jacobs), and at length in‘Inventing the Future’ by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek - see my review here.

I think that this second aspect is really important; one of the ways in which what is often called 'neo-liberalism' has been so successful is that it's really hard to think about other kinds of economic relationships, outside the framework of 'market economics'. Pseudo-economic ideas about governments not being able to spend more than they 'earn', and about the private sector as the only place where value is created, become the commonsense of our age. Making other kinds of ideas into common sense is a key task for any economic reformation.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Review of 'The Fencer'

Beautiful to look at Estonian film (actually a Finnish-Estonian co-production, but I've never seen an Estonian film before) set in the early 1950s and featuring a young fencer who moves to a small town to become a PE teacher and ends up starting a fencing club for his students. He's on the run from the secret police because he was conscripted into the German army and has to choose between loyalty to his committed pupils (who want to go to a fencing competition in Leningrad, where he is wanted) and maintaining his low profile. He goes, and then it turns into one of those underdog sports team films. It's well made, without cliches, and the Estonian kids are great.

It's very washed out and grim looking, and the Estonian people and landscapes look very authentic. I was a bit uncomfortable about the way the film treats his 'conscription' into the German army. Estonia and Finland both seem to me to have not really reflected very much on the fact that they fought on the side of the Nazis. It is perhaps forgiveable (if wrong) that young Estonian men thought the Nazis were the lesser evil compared to the Soviets, but some recognition that they were evil, and that they chose to do a bad thing that might have had even worse consequences seems warranted. That rarely happens.

My extensive research (well, the Wikipedia article) tells me that the Estonians who fought for the Nazis were volunteers, not conscripts, and that they fought in a Waffen SS Legion. Most Estonian Jews escapted (some taken into the USSR by the occupying Soviet armies in 1940-41 but there were massacres of those that remained, of Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and Jews from other countries in concentration camps located in Estonia.

The film depicts ruthless Soviets hunting down kindly Estonians; naturally it doesn't reflect that the west was by the early 1950s running networks of former Nazi collaborators as anti-communist partisans, the Forest Brothers.

Watched at the Lansdown Film Club on a proper cinema screen on a very snowy and cold night, which made the whole experience more authentic.